Soundtracks To Summer: The Strokes’ ‘Is This It’

07.11.14 3 years ago 4 Comments

Julian Casablancas The Strokes Governor's Ball 2014

Chris Longo

It all works somehow in the end
The things we did the thing you hide
But for the record is between you and I

The Strokes, “Barely Legal”

On the evening of June 7 at 6:45, The Strokes played only their second show since 2011 when they took the main stage at New York City’s Governor’s Ball Music Festival.

I was watching from the VIP area, where I shouldn’t have been after getting separated from my photographer on the way to the photographers’ pit (where I also should’t have been headed considering I only had a press wristband), and sparked a Camel Blue when the band took the stage. They fired right into my favorite Strokes song of all time, “Barely Legal,” followed by some other stuff off two albums I didn’t care about, before selecting the choice cuts from their first two albums, Is This It and Room On Fire. They ended a solid set with “New York City Cops” because duh.

Despite the VIP section’s proximity to the right side of the stage, being barely 5’5″ doesn’t do one many favors in trying to actually see the band. The main stage–like many of the other stages around the festival–did provide those large stadium screens to project out whatever act was playing onto the sweaty, lobster-red and camelback-toting masses who weren’t within eye exam proximity to the band. For the majority of the weekend, that’s how I viewed my bands: through a screen, despite the fact that they were physically right in front of me.

And sometimes I’d glance down at my phone’s screen to check Facebook or Instagram to see what was going on there, too.

June 7 of this year marked almost to the day my two-year-anniversary of moving full-time to New York. A week prior marked the three-year anniversary of my first move to the city, which was for a magazine internship in the summer of 2011.

That first time I was in New York I couldn’t keep from playing The Strokes’ 2001 debut, Is This It. The frequent spins probably had a lot to do with two things: a) I was a relatively late Strokes disciple, since I’d only actually taken the time to listen to the whole album earlier that spring–I was familiar with “Last Nite,” “Someday” and “Hard to Explain”–and I was hooked; and b) I’d just gone through a really weird situation with a girl that entire school year where, for the sake of space, we’d dated, she felt that I didn’t like her, I actually did, she started dating someone else and now, three years later, they’re engaged.

That’s a complete bastardization of the series of events that lead to our falling out, but it didn’t sit well with me. Finally checking into Is This It, it provided an adrenalized release, a “how cool are we that we don’t care?” slab of rock ‘n’ roll that I needed. Desperately. Both were also predictable move-to-New York soundtracks, but whatever.

More importantly, Is This It was a great way to connect with people. Because lots of people really, really liked it. There’s no need to mythologize it anymore than has already happened, but for people of a certain age if you mention, “oh man, I loved that first Strokes record,” more often than not you’ll get a “f*ck yeah” ditto in response.

One of my roommates that summer was a gay guy from Chicago, who was interning at O, Oprah’s magazine (he’s now currently one of BuzzFeed’s lead LGBT reporters). We were both Midwesterners, both Italian, but outside that, we didn’t share many similarities. But one of our first conversations lead to The Strokes and that first album, and for the remainder of the summer we’d meet around the corner from our NYU dorm several days per week and get sh*t-faced at happy hour–he’d order a “G-Spot,” some gin-based drink which the Jersey Italian chick behind the counter with massive tits absolutely loved serving him, while I’d take a pitcher of Bud Light to the face.

So express that you like The Strokes when you want to make friends.

Here’s what you should know about Ashley: she’s 22, hails from the East Bay, has a petite frame with olive skin that shapes like an hourglass in a white bikini in her modeling photos, and wants–in the end–to become a road manager for a band. She only moved to Brooklyn at the beginning of this year.

Over Super Bowl week in January, she worked the Time Warner event at Chelsea’s Highline Stages, assisting the Game Of Thrones crew in the exhibit HBO had set up on the stage’s third floor. I was working special events security for the event–a side-gig I’ve had through my mom’s friend since I moved here–which consisted mainly of telling people not to touch sh*t, organizing the line for the Oculus Rift section of the exhibit and generally bullish*tting with the rest of the crew during the 18-hour work days.

Ashley and I hit it off. When she wasn’t busy making small-talk with the attendees, and when I wasn’t busy standing in a corner staring off into space, we’d meet halfway into the exhibit and cut it up, taking 15 minutes to question why people would wait 45 minutes to take a virtual reality ride up an elevator shaft. Or we’d cover other generalities that came from being crammed into the same space for six straight days.

All week she wore black jeans and a baggy Game Of Thrones t-shirt with a hat whose bill protruded from her head like a stork’s beak. Initially, I thought she was Indian or Pakistani, like some of the women whom I grew up with. After getting to know her, I found out her backstory: her mother’s Mexican and from the Bay and her father’s an African-American Creole from the Louisiana Bayou. Which explained why, when she flashed me a smile from across the room, her mouth made not so much a grin or a full-toothed smile but an easy-going smirk like Selma Hayek, as if she knew something you didn’t but que será será.

On the last day of the event, when I’d decided to ask her number, I’d been placed at the stairwell on the side of the 15th Street door to make sure no guests of Diddy’s Revolt party (like Drake’s weed carriers) walked upstairs to disturb the teardown process. She eventually came to walk out my side, an hour after all of her coworkers had left, and had changed into an outfit that I can only describe as heroin chic: she wore a salt-and-pepper fur jacket and some sort of black tights and dress that were barely covered by the jacket.

I was hooked.

We made small talk for a few minutes before I intended to cooly ask for her number. She beat me to the punch.

“Hey, we should hang out sometime.”

“Yeah, I think that would be a good idea,” I said.

“What’s your number?”

I gave it to her, and into her phone she punched it before walking down the stairs.

If you listen to Is This It, Casablancas’ vocals might be the most distinct aesthetic element of the entire album. Like the instrumentation, they’re lo-fi, which I’ve always felt encapsulated what a bunch of semi-good looking rich New York City guys would’ve found compelling in 2001.

On the surface, it’s what rock ‘n’ roll should be about: looking as cool for the sake of cool as the artists can possibly muster. Is This It‘s lyrics flesh it out, whether Julian’s slur-shouting “our fears are different here, we train in A-V-A” or deadpanning “no choice now, it’s too late.”

But there’s a repressed urgency there, too, where Casablancas genuinely seems to be anxious about something, but can’t seem to verbalize it correctly. The aloofness is a defense mechanism against this baleful, faceless thing; the title “The Modern Age,” especially viewed within the context of a never-sleeping, mechanically working metropolis like New York, is salient since, sh*t, this modern age really is beating us down. What are we to do about it?

In 2011, like many other Midwestern expats, I was hopeful and carpe diem-ready. In 2013, I’m not so much listless as realistic, battle-worn and accustomed to the plodding, rote pace of New York that surfaces every morning, chiding, “what lies ahead?”, especially when I see my Midwestern (and even New York City editorial friends) make headway personally and professionally. And I’m here.

I’m owed nothing. But like Casablancas, I can’t help but wonder: is this really it?

I’m hesitant to call any of mine and Ashley’s hanging out before March “dates.” They weren’t, at least not in the sense that I was really trying to get anything romantic going on with her.

The first one, in early-February, probably sometime during Fashion Week but before my birthday, we’d met at the dive bar at the corner of my street. That street, Smith, was shrouded in snow and mid-winter gloom, the streetlights barely projecting any flicker of light past the curb on which they stood.

The darkness reflected into the dimly lit bar. She, like many other times we’d hang out, would be about 15 minutes late. She ordered Jack neat because she’ll only drink liquor straight, no mixers and never beer (makes her feel full to the point of throwing up). I had a Miller High Life because I’m cheap.

When we’d finished b*tching about our weeks of work–and she’d finished lambasting the majority of her Game Of Thrones team because she “just can’t stand working with a bunch of aspiring actors”–we randomly switched to the topic of music.

We liked a lot of the same bands. We both expressed love for The Smiths, which she then solidified by showing me the tattoo she had on her foot that read “No Hope No Harm” from “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me.”

And she loved The Strokes.

Although she’d only moved several weeks before, she knew The Strokes were going to play Governor’s Ball in June, since the line-up had been announced. I told her I planned to apply for press passes and she said she was trying to go, among the many other huge festivals she wanted to see when she wasn’t working.

We had a drink or two more and decided we’d hang out again when our schedules settled down in about a week (although, we did text almost everyday throughout that time). And if we drifted apart for whatever reason, we always knew we could get ahold of each other on Facebook or Instagram or whatever and meet up for Governor’s Ball.

At least there was that.

There are a few other reasons why our first couple of months hanging out didn’t leave me thinking relationship.

1. Her Traveling

This wouldn’t have been a problem of mine even if had we become a couple. But she’s mobile, and currently the traveling from her various jobs aren’t just means to an end, but ends within themselves. Her first few years out of high school, after a semester at Cal State-East Bay, she spent crossing timezones for boyfriends. One, she lived in London for; another, she’d fly to New York every weekend. She’s not grounded, literally, and hanging out was dependent upon her being in the city.

2. Her Social Media

This is a very lame and superficial reason, but bear with me. There’s a chilly vibe on both her Facebook and Instagram accounts, most likely because the majority of her pictures either consist of her a) modeling or b) posing with the same group of friends (her Game Of Thrones crew) at some bar. In almost none of those pictures is there a smile–only an almost-pout or an unperturbed look of apathy. Nothing really lends itself to saying, “hey, you should get to know me!” No warmth, nothing.

3. A Text From March

From when she was home in California for a month, visiting family and friends and working:

Ashley: Haha I’m just ready to be back and with all the peeps. I had some rough times while here so It’s time to go back to my people ha

Me: Hey, I’m ready for you to get back here. What happened?

Ashley: Had some heartache ha it’s kind of stupid. Like he lives in the uk and we never dated but were still pretty into each other he told me he’s seeing some bitch.

By the time she had gotten back, and before and after I went home to Ohio for Easter, we’d hang out two and three times per week. Often, we’d meet midday since we worked nights, and after lunch and a bar if we made out on Metropolitan Avenue in Brooklyn or Delancey Street on the Lower East Side, so be it. We’d made plans to go hiking, hit the beach when it got warmer and even though we didn’t chat everyday (that’s how we both preferred it) there was always communication, a steady stream of “lol”‘s and sh*t-talk.

I really liked her.

Is This It definitely isn’t perfect.

On the first few listens–those first several where the album really reaches out from your iTunes or Spotify account and chokes you–it sounds flawless, though. The five-song run from the title track “Is This It” through “Someday” might be one of the strongest to open an album in the past decade and a half, not to mention the back-half isn’t anything to scoff at either, which includes “Last Nite,” “Hard To Explain,” “New York City Cops,” and “Take It Or Leave It.”

But Is This It is one of those pop records where the surface deceives the longer you stare at it. The two biggest holes appear in the songs “Alone Together” and “Trying Your Luck,” the former which slows up the record right when it’s hitting its peak and the latter douses the second half right when the whole thing should self-combust. Room On Fire would have this problem, too, as “Between Love & Hate” and “I Can’t Win”–and “What Ever Happened” to a lesser extent, as the opening cut–extinguish the raucous momentum the band had built up through the rest of the LP.

Being new to the whole thing in 2011, I glossed over those potholes. Whether I played it on my iPod stumbling drunk across Astor Place back to W. 13th Street or sweating through my work clothes on Park South heading to work, I paid those two duds no mind. However, I haven’t been able to listen to the whole thing front to back since that year. I can’t gloss over how much I don’t like them any longer.

It’s a shame, too, because everything else about it seemed so great.

The warning signs were there with Ashley.

Among the things I glossed over because she was, for lack of a more specific term, cool, were her prodding questions about growing up in Ohio that made me feel like a Neanderthal in a Smithsonian exhibit; the drunk texts that stated nothing besides how f*cked up she was at some party; and the grammar faux pas in texts that only unnecessarily worry a person like me whose career is to edit.

But the biggest thing is how she views other people. This isn’t to be confused with how she treats people, because being in promotions and events, her visible, attentive treatment of people were central to how well she did her job–and she did it well. And for a time, she treated me well, too: laughed at my sh*tty jokes, asked how my day was going and genuinely smiled when I’d show up for a date.

For the most part, though, Ashley views people not so much as beings to form bonds with; rather, they’re stones in a stream that she crosses to get to the other side. She bemoaned not only attendees, but also her coworkers and her “c*nt” bosses (including the one who considers Ashley a best friend). To her, life’s not so much a progressive series of goals, but making it to the next big party–literally.

Her advice to me about attending club openings:

That’s kind of the good thing is Idc about anyone there ha so I can focus on fun which sometimes makes ppl wana knw me more ha just a protip!

I showed up in like jeans and a tshirt ha but ppl still like kept coming up to us telling us how cool we were ha

But when there’s opportunity…

I feel like I saw a lot of ppl yesterday that were at the henny party too

I’m beginning to think I need to do something more with those types ha

People are to be inherently used. That makes her no different than many successful business executives and politicians, which, based on how you view this Rorschach Test, makes her incredibly savvy. And maybe I, like other past guys, have connected with her. Maybe–probably–she played me. But it was fleeting. It always is.

Perhaps I can best sum her up by mentioning this anecdote of our drinking at a bar when we casually got into her domestic violence history. She, cooly sipping her margarita (which she later pawned off to me), mentioned the three separate times she’s choked a guy, two times involving ex-boyfriends and once involving an ex’s friend, if I’m remembering correctly. Ashley emphasized they weren’t warning chokes, but chokes to harm, chokes brought on by her belligerence and/or a slight towards her, chokes vicious enough it took multiple people to release her vice-grip. One, after a Lower East Side brunch last September before she moved here full-time, caught her a date in Manhattan court.

But there was no remorse. No lamentation that she needs to drink less or change how she handles people. It was their fault. Never hers.

It’s a shame, too, because everything about her seemed so great.

By the time I’d sent Ashley a photo of The Strokes concert, we were over. I knew it.

She ended up not making Governor’s Ball since she was working for a vaporizer company at a conference in Miami. But our communication had become stilted and one-sided. I’d ask her to hang out, she’d defer or say she had work. She sent me a weird text when I was out drinking one night, saying she lost her contacts and needed numbers. She tried to play it off as if she knew mine, but it was apparent she didn’t. Several days later, an obviously drunk-texted “heeewy” from her to me went unanswered after I replied.

This guy, Josh, had come into the picture at this point and initially I wasn’t worried, even though he’d come up in conversation as “a friend” since April. He’s an Ohio guy like me–he even graduated from Ohio University a year after I did–but he looks like a dolled-up, Midwestern Legolas. Girlfriends back home agreed that if he isn’t gay, then he’s trying way too hard.

His Instagrams featured him kissing her on the cheek while she stared out the screen like Medusa. He liked and commented on her stuff with smiley-face emojis, took pictures of their dessert after “a surprise date night” (seriously, who the f*ck does that?), all of it bleeding across to my social media accounts when I didn’t want to see it.

But she was gone. Our last interaction was a date at a BYOB Mediterranean place down the street, where we were cordial and had a good time, but she decided to take it upon herself to kill the half-bottle of tequila I brought with me. Before that, though, when I sent her the picture of Julian up on stage, the screen I was watching behind him, she texted back, “fuck you lol. I’m in south beach so it’s not that bad.”

Of course. It never is.

But that’s it.

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